VfL Wolfsburg and their balanced, disciplined 4-2-3-1

First of all, I reckon there’s a small apology in order as it’s been an awful long time since the last post about Mönchengladbach, but with FM15 giving way abruptly to FM16, there was always going to be a crossover point in this Bundesliga tactics series… So we soldier on anyway beyond Gladbach and their “deep-lying gegenpress” and onto something that will seem much more familiar (and with less hipster sparkle) to fans of the English Premier League in particular – VfL Wolfsburg’s 4-2-3-1.

For a bit of background, Wolfsburg are one of those teams that German’s have reservations about because they’re not very German in their foundation and finances. Like Bayer Leverkusen, they are one of two top flight teams that are entirely owned by a company – in Wolfsburg’s case, Volkswagen. Though simplistic to say their recent success has been bankrolled by a multinational automobile conglomerate, it certainly hasn’t done them any harm having plenty of money behind the scenes. The peak of their success was a Bundesliga championship in 2009, but both Dortmund and the now virtually unstoppable Bayern have kept them at arm’s length in recent seasons.



For much of the last decade, their style has remained relatively consistent and as mentioned earlier, there is plenty that many will find familiar about their shape and roles. Although this recent result was a landslide victory for Wolfsburg, we can see a good outline of their shape here:

(Wolfsburg are in Green and White)wolf bremenMany thanks once again to Spielverlagerung.de for creating these excellent base formations.

A 4-2-3-1 can be a cruel mistress in FM and the internet is positively full to the brim with examples of poorly constructed versions of this formation that fail to take into account it’s principle weakness – space behind the midfield. To say Wolfsburg are aware of this is an understatement, as they have consistently operated with two deep midfielders (a “double pivot” if you want to get fancy) sitting behind an attacking four that often seek to overload the middle. The two central midfielders tend to comprise a pair of intelligent, tough-tackling, hard workers – Luiz Gustavo being the prime example in recent seasons, as well as his fellow countryman, Josué before him. One of the pair has perhaps a little more creative license but disciplined positioning is the order of the day as they both start from a deep position, protecting the defence.

As for the back four, their job is pretty simplistic and their main aim is to provide a sturdy line of defence behind the midfield, as well as constructive support when necessary. A pair of muscular central defenders protect the box and must be comfortable on the ball to help with recycling possession, whereas the two outside defenders protect the flank and support the midfield as the play advances. In spite of the double pivot, there isn’t a great emphasis on overlapping by the wide defenders at Wolfsburg and they recognise the inherent attacking nature of their formation which essentially has four players up front.

Progressing to the forward line, it is equally simplistic and comprises a central forward, attacking midfielder and two wide attackers that seek to attack both the channels and the touchline depending on the situation. Current manager Dieter Hacking usually plays a more traditional wide right with his wide left cutting inside mainly due to the lack of left-footed players in the squad. The front two comprise a deeper support player and a forward that tends to play on the shoulder, looking for chances in and around the area.



wolf tac

So this is the basic shape i’ve gone for to start with and I reckon it brings together the key points we have learned about Wolfsburg’s style. At it’s most simple, there’s a back four, two deep midfielders and four forwards. Scratch below the surface and we have the things that give VfL’s approach a bit of flavour:

  • A deep midfielder with more license to put in the tackle offset by a partner that will look to offer more support the front four.
  • A wide right that looks to provide width offset by a wide left that cuts inside.
  • A strike partnership comprising a supporting player in the hole and an advanced player on the shoulder.

I have also set the left back as a Wing Back rather than a Full Back as it made sense with the other roles around him (also, Ricardo Rodriguez is excellent and should be involved more).

Regarding the Mentality and Team Shape, I have left them set to Standard and Flexible as I couldn’t find much information about Wolfsburg having a particular mentality. From what I’ve seen personally, they are disciplined and rely on close support, short passing and rotating movement up front to provide opportunities but they can also be direct and will gegenpress at times like most German teams, so I didn’t feel there was a strong enough style for me to include it in the base instructions for the tactic. Plus, a relatively neutral base is always the best starting point when it comes to analysis at a later point.



Wolfsburg are blessed with a talented but thin squad and a couple of key injuries may mean inconsistency in the early season. That said, these key men should be fit by start of the Bundesliga proper so we should be raring to go for when Bayern come to town on 22nd August. In an ideal world, i’d probably be set up like this:

wolf team

In defence we have Naldo and Dante as our first choice central partnership, both tall, physically imposing and with brazilian feet that should give them presence on the ball. Outside of them, left-sided Ricardo Rodriguez could end up as one of our best players whereas right-siders Jung and Träsch offer more traditional wide defensive options.

In midfield, Luiz Gustavo and loanee Guilavogui are defensively oriented, aggressive, never-say-die lads that will keep us solid through the middle. Maximillian Arnold and Carlos Ascues provide youthful options with Arnold being much more attack oriented (perhaps for those games when you need a spark).

Up front, the wide options are multiple with Vierinha and Draxler providing the trickyness and technique while Schürrle and Caligiuri rely more on pure pace and aggression. Draxler may be used in the hole but I think I will be more likely to go down the route of Dieter Hacking and play Max Kruse as the supporting forward behind the ruthlessly efficient Bas Dost. Dost lacks technique and speed, but is a borderline world-class finisher that should be sniffing out chances all over the final third. In reserve we have the perennial egotist, Nicklas Bendtner who is quite honestly average all over. Say it quietly but I reckon he found his level during that Birmingham loan years ago…



Now we have the basic set up and an idea of who will play where, it’s time to run through pre-season and get to those competitive fixtures where we discover just how effective or ineffective the tactic is. In terms of being faithful to Wolfsburg’s style, I believe there is a little more license here than in the Gladbach article as Die Wölfe don’t tend to emphasise one set way of defending or attacking. It’s about discipline and balance which I believe the current settings already provide… that could all change though and in the next article we’ll find out!